Is there any story more immediately relatable than the coming-of-age? After all, we’ve all grown up; all felt, to one extent or another, the confusion of feeling yourself changing, of becoming someone new. While Boyhood, for instance, documents the scope and detail of twelve whole years of maturation, Diary of a Teenage Girl focuses on the awakening of its protagonist’s sexuality over the course of a few key months.
Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley, A Royal Night Out) is a fifteen-year-old aspiring artist living in San Francisco circa 1976. Her judgmental mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) is a glamorous mess, perennially either coked-up or passed out, and her speccy younger sister Gretel (Abigail Wait) has a habit of listening at keyholes. Her largely absent step-father, Pascal (an uptight Christopher Meloni), now estranged, dispenses damagingly trite psychological tidbits and orders the kids espressos rather than ice cream.
Wide-eyed and bow-lipped, usually attired in a well-worn Mickey the Rat t-shirt, Minnie is preoccupied with her art and her own perceived lack of attractiveness. It’s at just this time in her life that Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), her mother’s mustachioed, layabout boyfriend, starts displaying an interest in her. Pretty soon it’s all sex, drugs, T-Rex and Mott the Hoople.
Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same name — subtitled “An Account in Words and Pictures” — Diary of a Teenage Girl marks the writing-directing debut of Marielle Heller. It feels, at least, like a deeply confessional one. With its ‘70s palette — all earth tones and geometric flower patterns — the film is a hazy period piece with real universality, drawing out both the emotional drama and prurient humor from its exploration of sex and nascent love (the former of which there is a lot).
The 23-year-old Powley turns in a revelatory performance, her frank audio diary confessions almost superfluous given the expressiveness of her eyes alone — capable of wordlessly conveying utter innocence and deceptive worldliness, joy and fear, longing and disgust. Minnie’s relationship with Monroe seesaws between childish games (biting his fingers) and proto-seduction (her hand on his cock).
“I want to fucking fuck you”, she tells him shortly before their first tryst and he, considerably older and a head and shoulders taller, should know how to refuse. His fantasy of a teenage nymphet and her need for validation — “Somebody wants to have sex with me” — just happen to intersect, as do their self-delusions: Monroe offers to “make love”; Minnie promises not to get attached. “Don’t you feel like he’s taking advantage” asks Minnie’s blonde, fur-wearing friend, Kimmie (Madeleine Waters).
It’s to Diary of a Teenage Girl’s credit, though, that it prevents Minnie not only as a victim but an instigator, however ill-advised. After simultaneously giving blowjobs for $5 a pop, hand holding all the while, the pair agree not to repeat the experiment. Liberation is mingled with regret, and her mistakes, however spectacular, however devastating, are part of Minnie coming into her own.
The inspiration she draws from underground comics artist Aline Kominsky (later Aline Kominsky-Crumb) colours Minnie’s own work and, as a result, the film: she imagines herself as a giant harlot peaceably wandering the streets of San Fran. Also, let’s just say that teenage boys are not the only ones to doodle penises on things — though they are no doubt far less lovingly rendered than Minnie’s own depictions.
Honest and empowering, the film has a profound message about feeling happy in your own skin; that for all the promise of emotional entanglement and guilt-free hookups, there is joy too in dancing alone.
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